Commentaries - December 2013

Ivan Alechine: Muxa Uxi, a Poem from the Huichol Sierra, with Notes by the Author

Translation from French by Wendy Parramore

Ivan Alechine: Shadow of the Shaman Dionisio in Muxa Uxi.
Ivan Alechine: Shadow of the Shaman Dionisio in Muxa Uxi.

I am the man and the dog Nahuatl

the pine needles fall

without thunder

like fine lightning

 

blow the cinders

the great raw theatre

of the oak’s bark

re-appear the black and the white

 

I salute you Germaine

I salute you Gabrielle

I salute you Paula

I salute you Michèle of all mothers mother

from the logosnow to the logosand

on the sand of Muxa Uxi

 

Muxa Uxi 80 years ago

Muxa Uxi 800 years ago

Muxa Uxi 8000 years ago

 

I the watchman A gitur

in the O of the white circle

with a hit of E

from Urawe the hunter

 

I followed the path

I wrote in the snow

I drew in the sand

against and to the flow

with the lines and with the walls of earth

with bucketfuls of whitewash splashed

howling mute slap-dash

from my sponge – suitcase

from my hand to my eye

from Pierre to Christian

from Jean to Charles

and from Asger to Scylla

 

I saw

I see the path

winding its way

through the oaks and pines

I saw it

I see it begin at the barbershop in Dublin

It’s there

 

in front of my eyes

as I sit on my chair

leaning my back against the dried mud wall

unmoving I keep on walking

my foot on the high plain

the least movement a word

 

on the ground of a bark

I read the signs of renewal

I read once more the bark of the platonic incense

on the trunk of the ravine

I read the shadow and the shadow’s movement

the ravine’s coal color movement

a fire a washed fire a lava

 

the woman dressed like a wood-path fairy

wearing her serpent skin

between the oaks and pine

she leads a grey donkey to which she’s tied Camilla and Xo

her two young children

the woman dressed like a fairy has vanished from the path

leaving me silence and wine

crystal clearly I see the earthen path

under the crystal clear sky

grain after grain

the exposure to light is perfect

an exceptional print

 

this picture

this path

between the white figures and the midget trees

where all holds

where I said I photographed the falling sky

the infinitely small against the infinite

the water and the shadow of the branches

the branch-gills of the trees upswept by the wind

 

what I see

the figures of trees and wolves

--- a tree --- a figure ---

--- a second tree --- a second figure ---

--- dust of the ground --- dust of the sun

my heart in secret palpitates

waiting to be reborn

waiting to disappear

a word each December sky

crystal clear December

of my days and my cheeks afire

 

those I belong to have vanished

changed

                  unchanged

                                                smaller

bigger

washed figures

 

with full words

of the figures of the shadows

taking on colors

shadows growing roots

now white

now black becoming alive

etched stars

bridges of saliva

on the moving sky of the fixed stars

steel cranes with star like hooks

lying on my back

my feet among the plastic shards

pine needles raining from the inverted sky

crystal snowflakes of a miniature Montmartre plastic dome in hand

the two sides of the sky now one

what I see here I see elsewhere

 

the path where the woman fairy vanished

pulling behind her the grey donkey carrying her children

blindly I see serpentine

among the figures and the trees

lying low the wolves of Muxa Uxi

 

piston of sigh

the sun lights the spark to the gas fumes of sleep

the dream in the staircase of the dream

one night pushed me in the back

like the neighing of a horse rolling its back in the dust

tinkles the rock hit by a finger of lightning

imagine ô Shakespeare a summer night from June to June next

silk and satin linen

perfume silver hand-bells

floating under my feet with cushions of velvet

beneath the red and green Hazeltrees

children run after wild strawberries

Urawe branch of my arms

 

on the theatre’s stage or in a novel

when the novel is yet a prose poem

this lovely disposition of things

the curtain is up at last

the beautiful intention

smoke is dispersed at last

on the refinement at the vortex’s edge

red and green

skin open and shut

we live off interferences

star’s short

bark’s medium

underground’s long

 

temaïku akurri (“do not despair young man”)

 

(arrival of Yukaïma

Yukaïma niece of Xaureme

accompanied by Tutunyïeli

grandaughter of Xaureme ---

6th of December --- end of the poem)

 

Mexico 2011

 

NOTE BY AUTHOR

 

For the Huichol Indians, the place called Muxa Uxi , a vast chalky clearing, is the place where wolves lay low “disguised as sheep”. It is situated in the state of Jalisco, right at the heart of the Western Sierra Madre, close to the San Andrès ceremonial centre.  Urawé means wolf.

 

As concerns the Huichol Indians and their culture, they are distant cousins of the vanished Aztecs and closely related to the Pueblo Indians. The referential studies are those led by Carl Lumholtz, 1851 – 1922, Konrad Preuss, 1869 – 1938, as well as those led by Robert Mowry Zingg, 1900 – 1957. Recently, Fernando Benitez, 1912 – 2000, Phil C. Weigand, 1937 – 2011, and Peter Furst, have accomplished an impressive body of work.

 

Logosnow and Logosand are neologisms created by the poet Christian Dotremont, 1925-1979, founder, in the late 1940s, of CoBrA, the artistic movement.

 

I the watchman A gitur, an allusion to Igitur, the well known poem by Stéphane Mallarmé.

 

[FURTHER NOTE BY THE EDITOR. A writer & photographer of singular accomplishment Ivan Alechine has spent much of the last twenty years in close association with the Huichol Indians of the Sierra Madre Occidental in western central Mexico.  More recently he has focused on one particular community of Huichols closed off to all investigation, whether ethnographic or photographic, since that led, in 1934, by American anthropologist Robert M. Zingg.  His first photographic album, Poca Luz, “on the theme of a Mexico having gone astray, a cold and industrial Mexico,” appeared in 2010.  Of an earlier work of his, Les Voleurs de pauvres (The Robbers of the Poor), Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote: “An ethnographic novel in which literature allows one to accede to an authentic reality and to its more complete understanding. The book offers a very forceful depiction of the present condition of many indigenous peoples.”  So too for his work in the present. (J.R.)]

David Wilk interviews Charles Bernstein, Al Filreis & Michael Hennessey of PennSound

On December 5, 2013, David Wilk released his interview with me, Charles Bernstein and Michael Hennessey about PennSound. At his WritersCast site, Wilk explains: 

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics? It’s my hope that these conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing and writing, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

PennSound is a very special online resource that was instigated by founders Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein with the incredible support of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. There is really nothing like it in the world, and for anyone interested in poetry, poetics, or the literary world of the past 100 years, it is an incredibly important resource.  The energy and dedication that has gone into this unmatched collection of recordings of poets reading, lecturing and talking about poetry is a gift whose impact will be felt for many years to come.

Pierre Joris on Paul Celan and the Shoah

On December 3, 2013, Pierre Joris discussed Paul Celan’s poetry, with special focus on his response to the genocide of Europe’s Jews and others during World War II. The session, which I moderated, featured close readings of passages of “Death Fugue” and “Stretto.” Joris played an audio recording of Celan reading the first section of “Death Fugue,” and a newly discovered video recording made from Celan’s appearance on German television. Jean-Michel Rabaté, a member of the audience at this event, remembered Celan as a teacher. The video recording of the event is here, and the audio recording is here. The Writers House web calendar entry for the event can be found here.

The Selected Letters of Louis Zukofsky, edited by Barry Ahearn (2013)

on z-site

free in-screen digital book

Here is the first letter, from when Zukofsky was only 15 -- a submission to Poetry magazine:

Zukofsky on PennSound
Zukofsky on EPC 

Rethinking E. E. Cummings: An Appeal for a New Reading [redux]

[Prepared for an all-day E. E. Cummings symposium at the American Literature Association meetings on June 5, 1994, while I was working with Pierre Joris on Poems for the Millennium,  but never published except for a posting three years ago on the blogger version of my own Poems and Poetics.  The discussion here also goes back to a conversation with Louis Zukofsky (one of many) who I think shared most of these sentiments, as his frequent citations of Cummings would seem to confirm.  My gratitude & admiration, like Louie’s, remain strong.]

 

1

Every time I prepare a new anthology or go over the writings of the twentieth century from the perspective of the present, I wonder where (and how) it was that we lost E. E. Cummings.  In my own coming into poetry at all – but that was long ago – his was a central presence.  I knew his poems, could recite a good number of them by (almost) heart, was on to all of his tricks, had Cummings lines and phrases (always) at my fingertips, and found his voice entwined with mine in writing.  If my own punctuation or upper cases fell away it was with reference to him; if my margins trembled, turned to rags, it was with his as early model; if my adverbs shifted into verbs or my conjunctions turned to nouns, it was clearly him behind it.  At sixteen I had no other guides but him and Stein (and shortly Joyce) into new ways of language.  By a decade later, the works of others lingered or came newly into mind, but Cummings (for all intents and purposes) had disappeared.

            It baffles me – not only because his poems still resonate for me (and I have always been careful to include him in the assemblages, the gatherings I’ve made) but because one would have expected him to hold for the generations of latterday modernist (later called postmodernist) poets.  Think back to the roots of my own generation.  In his great initiatory essay, “Projective Verse” (that was in 1950), Charles Olson presented not only a new way to make the poem but found that there existed older (American) poets who had already (“each after his way”) moved in that direction, who had established (he wrote of them) “the already projective nature of verse.”  From that identifying statement, to which I was already late in coming, the two poets who come inevitably to mind are Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and yet, when Olson comes to name them, it is a third one – Cummings – whom he mentions and credits first.

            There is no question of an inequality here, no lower ranking or disfavor shown to Cummings, and no hedging about his place beside the others.  Olson in fact is strikingly particular in what he attributes to Cummings as a lesson for poets then emerging.  The discussion is of notation via typewriter as it relates to breath.  “If a contemporary poet,” Olson writes, “suspends a word or syllable at the end of a line” (and here he adds: “this was Cummings’ addition”) “he means that time to pass that it takes the eye – that hair of time suspended – to pick up the next line.”

            “[Mostly] Cummings’ addition” he means, not only or uniquely his – for it was shared even then with Williams and would be later with countless others as well, but listen, e.g., how clear it sounds in something like Cummings’ tribute, circa 1925, directed to Picasso:

[reads]:

 

Picasso
you give us Things
which
bulge:grunting lungs pumped full of sharp thick mind

 you make us shrill
presents always
shut in the sumptuous speech of
simplicity

 (out of the
black unbunged
Something gushes vaguely a squeak of planes
or

 between squeals of
Nothing grabbed with circular shrieking tightness
solid screams whisper)
Lumberman of the Distinct

 your brain’s
axe only chops hugest inherent
Trees of Ego, from
whose living and biggest

 bodies lopped
of every
prettiness

 you hew form truly

 

 Or again, in one that we all know, and that I used to (and still do) carry in my head or heart:

 [reads]:

 

Buffalo Bill’s

defunct
       who used to
       ride a watersmooth-silver
                               stallion
       and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
                                              Jesus
he was a handsome man
                        and what I want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

 

It is, looking back at it now, a beautifully paced and articulated short poem – as spoken and as seen – and a key to what became increasingly possible for others after Cummings’ own works.

 

2

At the time of Olson’s Projective Verse manifesto (1950), Cummings was the most popularly recognized, most spectacularly experimental of the visible American poets (outside of Gertrude Stein, that is, who was herself very differently situated and rarely – except by Williams, say – acknowledged as, specifically, a poet).  The extent of Cummings’ recognition is reflected in Pound’s titling of his own global anthology From Confucius to Cummings, or in Williams’ statement on Cummings, whom he places with Pound as “beyond doubt the two most distinguished American poets of today,” that “to me, of course, E. E. Cummings means my language.”  A similar acknowledgement would come from Louis Zukofsky, who ranks with the others mentioned as among the American poets making “epics” as in Pound’s words, “poem[s] including history.”  Thus Cummings appears a number of times in Zukofsky’s anthology/overview of English-language poetries, A Test of Poetry, and Zukofsky opens his summarizing essay (1930) on American poetry then entering its fourth twentieth-century decade with a linking of Cummings and Joyce as primary movers for his own “Objectivist” generation.

 

*

 

Now, there is no question that for many in my own generation and some part of what comes after, Williams, Pound, Olson, and Zukofsky can be viewed as the founders of a major line – not our only postmodern avant-garde but certainly one that any of us devoted to innovative or transformative writing would need seriously to consider.  Here – apart from Olson and Zukofsky early on – I have found Cummings absent as a force or as a cited influence, beyond the admission (as in my case, above) of an enthusiasm dating back to adolescence.  In other areas the recognition is possibly more direct or forthright – for those engaged, say, in concrete poetry and other forms of visually and typographically based writing.  Here the locus is largely European, and in virtually any history or historical gathering of textart, word and image, poésure & paintrie, etc., Cummings is sure to appear as an acknowledged early American example.  (So, by the way, is Pound, whose coined word noigandres became the name of the principal concrete poetry movement in Brazil.)

            In the context of concrete and visual poetry, there is another interesting and useful thing that happens in our positioning of Cummings.  Viewed alongside or within the early twentieth-century avant-garde he becomes no longer the unique instance but (as he truly was) the great American interpreter of the new visuality (and more) that was being developed on an international scale for two or three decades (1895 to 1920 roughly) before his own entry into poetry.  If this makes him seem less original than heretofore (but the nature of such originality would itself be open to much question) it shows him as part of a larger work of transformation that was opening up new possibilities of language and of thought.

            As a member of a lineage (rather than the sport of nature he sometimes preferred to be or to be seen as being) his predecessors go from Mallarmé through Apollinaire (that much is obvious) and reach a first and widely known cresting in the Futurisms (Italian and Russian both) around the first world war.  (Marinetti’s “liberated words” and dicta regarding the “destruction of syntax” and the suspended use of punctuation and of captials would surely have been known to Cummings; Kruchenykh’s and Khlebnikov’s “word as such”/”letter as such” less likely.)  The push comes closer to his own time with the works of Dada and De Stijl, of Kurt Schwitters’ Merz, of Paul van Ostaijen’s holographic/typographic writings in Bezette Stad in Belgium, of Anatol Stern and Alexander Wat in Poland; and beyond the visual and concrete, we see connections to works that are at once asyntactic and neologistic: the zaum experiments of the great Russian pioneers; the fractured grammar and proto-lettrism of Schwitters, Raoul Hausmann, and Theo van Doesburg; even the radical relanguagings of Joyce that clearly formed an instance known and admittedly absorbed by Cummings.

            To say all of that is in no sense to diminish Cummings, much less to obscure him.  For it is precisely in this light (I would suggest) that Cummings’ moves and differences can still be felt: as a developer of compositional strategies with sources and outcomes that are important for the real (not fabricated) mainstream of twentieth-century poetry and language art.  At its most radical heart (not its extremities, its fringes, but its heart) the vocabulary is surely there – as it was with Olson a half century ago – to speak of and to precisely name his contributions.  So, for example, the Noigandres poets of Brazil (Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, Decio Pignatari), in their “master plan for a new concrete poetry” in 1960, list their array of predecessors, among whom Cummings is cited for his pioneer work in “the atomization of words,” in “physiognomical typography,” and in his “expressionistic emphasis on space.”  The assessment is all the more important as a set of working hypotheses by highly creative and intelligent poets in the act of shaping their own destinies.

            To look at Cummings’ work, then, through Noigandres or other engaged movements and artists is to see it from a perspective that begins to approach the present.  I would suggest (since we’re here at a meeting of those, I take it, who are well disposed to Cummings) that one could now assess, could reassess Cummings in light of those and still later practitioners, even some of those (I’m only guessing here) who would likely back away from the acknowledgement of too close a connection.  What could be done in this instance might be to follow through on the 1950 Olson proposition (the voice’s suspension in the movement  of the line, the hovering of voice or breath) and compare the work of Cummings to that of Black Mountain poets like Creeley or Paul Blackburn, where I had thought of it always as most notable, or to that of Olson himself.  And again, with a look toward the verbovisual postmodern, I would consider such borderline poets as Jackson Mac Low and John Cage, often included in such listings, or even such later (so-called) Language Poets as Bruce Andrews, say, or Hannah Weiner, in relation to whom Cummings would no longer seem so marginalized and willful, but as a pioneer in those works of “lexical and orthographic atomization/fragmentation, physiognomical typography, and spatial reconfiguration” (whether “expressionistic” or not) that the Noigandres poets called to our attention.

            In my own case – to return to that – Cummings first allowed me to see that language was more than an adherence to the rules we had imposed on it, that there was in fact a range of remaking that was not only possible but often necessary in all our language acts as poets.  I began with that when I was very young, lost it for a time (along with others of my generation) into my early twenties, and began to recover it again at the time of our rebirth (our renaissance, to put it baldly) in the later 1950s.  I have never gotten back to Cummings in that sense, but I know that many of his works (among the first I memorized without ever really trying) are a part of my own body and state-of-mind down to the present.  I will hardly try to ferret out the traces of it in my writings, nor do I think that derivation functions in that way.   But I will close this presentation with a shortened version of a poem in which I atomize or break up words and reconstruct them – not as Cummings did but in a way that he and others both before and after him allowed to happen.

            The origins of what I’ve written here go back to practices of verbal composition that are widespread in oral traditions around the world and notably among the traditional Indian peoples in the Americas.  In the early 1970s, fully aware of the experimental writings and soundings of my contemporaries (in America and Europe), I worked with the assistance of the ethnomusicologist David McAllester from a series of Navajo horse-blessing songs that had been part of the Blessingway of a Navajo hatali (medicine man or, literally, singer) named Frank Mitchell.  In doing so I made the English accountable for all the word distortions and nonsemantic sounds and syllables that are characteristic of that kind of poem-song.  The result on the page was a text with diminished readability but one that I could use to rescore a performance, not following a Navajo melody or rhythm but one that seemed to me to issue from the English words and sounds of my own poem.  If this connects Cummings (and the rest of us) to a tradition deeper and older than the modern and postmodern present, it will have been part of my intention all along.

 

[reads or chants]:

 

(Nnnnn N ghan) because I was the boynging raised ing the dawn & nnnn but   

     some there are mine all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 'rrr mine there

(Nnnn N ghan) & in the howse the bluestone home & mmmrrrr but some there

     're mine all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 'rrr mine there

(Nnng N ghan) & in the howse the shininggwingNdghan & some there are mine

     all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 'rrr mine there

 

et cetera